There’s a critique of American films of the 1990s that calls out an excessive focus on slacker protagonists: the too-cool-for-school hipsters, always rolling their eyes, coolly mocking authority without actually challenging it, all affect and no action. Think Reality Bites, Slacker, or even The Big Lebowski. As one character in the film Slacker notes disapprovingly about another: “[You’re] of those neoposeur types that hangs out in coffee shops and doesn’t do much of anything.”
When we were programming our upcoming film series at the Blanton, which begins on April 3, we were interested in films of the 90s that engaged with this cliché of the inactive, slacker protagonist. The first two films in this series, Party Girl and Safe, can be read as movies about characters paralyzed by inaction, but more interesting is the way in which Party Girl’s Mary, played by Parker Posey, and Safe’s Carol, played by Julianne Moore, are depicted on film as being mismatched with their respective environments. The films ask us to consider our own responses to feeling disappointed with, ill-suited for, or even physically threatened by the social and physical environments in which we live. Despite being very different in tone—Party Girl’s comedy shot through with melodrama, and Safe’s melodrama filmed as horror—each film presents a unique and challenging take on the archetypal 90s slacker.
One of the ways in which Party Girl presents the titular character as being mismatched with her environment is through its compositions that show Parker Posey’s body being blocked and constrained by objects within the film’s frame. At various points in the story, she’ll be screened from the viewer by stacks of library books, by ravers in a crowded apartment, and even by the bars of a jail cell. While it’s clear that she is the film’s key figure—the title refers directly to her and she’s in nearly every scene—it’s unusual in classical film form to have the main character so frequently blocked from the audience’s view.
The way that this visual motif develops is central to the main character’s development during the film. As she begins to adapt to a new job and to feeling older and less closely connected to her Party Girl persona, the camera similarly adapts to show these changes. And the tension in watching the film’s conclusion is how her character resolves her various identities, as Dionysian Party Girl and Apollonian Librarian, and whether she’ll revert to her former self, metamorphose into a new identity, or synthesize these roles.
The second film in the series, Safe, presents the main character as being mismatched with her environment in very different but striking ways. Whereas in Party Girl, the film frame’s typically intrudes upon Parker Posey’s body with props, costumes, and architectural elements, the framing in Safe is stark and wide open: the film’s ambient soundtrack, its cold lighting filters, and its minimal compositions evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey and the films of Italian minimalist director Michelangelo Antonioni.
Safe’s central dramatic action revolves around Carol’s mysterious environmental illness, which leads her to an increasingly severe series of lifestyle changes in order to diagnose and treat her physical discomfort. But the nature of environmental illness is that the factors that cause it are largely invisible, and the presence of this invisible menace haunts the empty onscreen spaces in Safe.
Safe is one of the key films of the 90s in its iconic film style—with a minimal precision that reworks key films from the 1960s, and that prefigures 21st century classics like Uncle Boonmee or even There Will Be Blood. But it’s also a perfect choice for our 90s film series at the Blanton because it engages with social problems of the decade, as do so many works from our current exhibition Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s. Safe is a film about an American woman’s encounter with an empty suburban landscape, with inflexible gender roles and emotionally unfulfilling friendships and marriages, and with deadly toxins encountered in traffic jams, hair salons, and even in our homes.
So it’s certainly true that many American filmmakers of the 90s were interested in the dramatic possibilities of inactive protagonists: party girls rather than guns for hire, coffee-shop philosophers rather than hardscrabble boxers, Parker Posey and Ethan Hawke instead of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. But what the first two films in our series show is how complicated these slacker roles can really be, and how creative filmmakers responded to adapt visual motifs that develop these characters’ stories.
Adam Bennett organizes the music, film, and lecture series at the museum in his role as the Blanton’s manager of public programs. He also writes about arts and culture and practices law in Austin.
Party Girl screens at the Blanton on April 3 at 1 p.m.
Safe screens at the Blanton on April 10 at 1 p.m